Crunchy Spicy Tangy Thai Salad

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Crunchy Spicy Tangy Thai Salad

At the centre of a party you have the brash, garishly dressed harpy in a spandex and lurex flesh-popping, bum-skirting bodycon dress. She’s swishing her long, over-straightened blonde hair in the hope that people, like magpies, will be drawn in by its glinting sheen. But she’s telling the story you’ve heard a hundred times.

The punchlines are obvious and overdone. It’s an opaque boast to show off her intellect and attractiveness. She’s hyperbolising, and the decibels are mounting, in order to suck more people in.

You draw near, but after a few superficial bites, you hit the bone. What appeared to be a sumptuous, resplendent, sticky chicken wing feast was just a scraggly bit of overhyped flesh, and you’re left with a sickly sweet taste, desperate for something more refreshing and with more interest.

That’s when you leave the centre of the room and go over to the quiet person in the corner: modestly dressed, elegant but not overstated, and initially slightly shy. But once you start talking, there’s no stopping - tantalising wit, layers of texture and depth, sweet enough but with refreshing zestiness that intrigues and keeps you going back for more. Guard this salad closely because when others' attention rapidly wanes they’ll be coming over here too. Food envy is not something to be treated lightly, so here’s the recipe:

 

 

Recipe

Ingredients (serves 4)

3 tbsp (60g) smooth peanut butter (unsalted preferably)

4 1/2 tsp (45g) honey

4 1/2 tsp sesame oil

4 1/2 tsp soy sauce 

3 tbsp lime juice

15g finely grated fresh ginger 

1 medium sized garlic clove, crushed

(optional) 1 small Thai red chilli, very finely chopped

 

230g red cabbage (approx 1 quarter of a cabbage)

1 red pepper

130g cucumber

3 spring onions

100g beansprouts

60g roasted and salted peanuts, crushed + 10g extra for serving

25g coriander, roughly chopped + 5g extra for serving

 

Method

  1. In a medium bowl, whisk together all the dressing ingredients until smooth and emulsified.
  2. Finely slice the cabbage horizontally (so the average piece is about 4cm long). Remove the stalk and deseed the red pepper, then slice finely horizontally.
  3. Slice the cucumber in half lengthways and, with a teaspoon, scoop out the seeds. Then slice finely lengthways and then in half horizontally to create matchsticks.  Finely chop the spring onions.  Then in a large bowl mix together the cabbage, pepper, cucumber, spring onions, crushed peanuts & roughly chopped coriander.
  4. Pour the dressing over, and mix through. Scatter with extra crushed peanuts and then the chopped coriander, and serve.  If you are making in advance, prepare the salad ingredients and dressing separately, and pour the dressing on just before serving.

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Raspberry & Orange Financiers

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Raspberry & Orange Financiers

Entremets, soufflés, macarons, choux buns - even making ciabatta, a two day process, which culminates in a dough whose tenacious elasticity has been known to reduce some people to tears - I’ve generally met their challenges.

However, hubris met nemesis a couple of weeks ago. I came home to the nutty toasted perfume of a new recipe my mom had tried out: ridiculously simple, five ingredient coconut wafers so thin you could see the sunset through them, so tender that they crumbled in anticipation of hitting one’s tongue, and so light and moreish that a second batch was immediately required in order to satisfy my family’s greed.

I duly crumbed, clumped, chilled, and sliced.  “Make them thinner,” my mom said. And I did, each slice crumbling into thousands of buttery coconut crumbs. I pressed them together and started again. And again. Unfortunately, it was only my patience that turned out thin, and the petulant three year old in me ended up scooping together the entire mixture and, from a height, throwing it down onto the tray.

Finally, I managed to get the fragments to coagulate by adding water. Things went more smoothly, but the biscuits, when baked, were slightly tougher, less flaky and less moreish than the original batch. Nevertheless, my brother took them to university. One of his friends, suffering from tonsillitis, reached into the box of biscuits, and in taking out one, touched many. The rest were binned, mostly due to the possibility of their having being infected with tonsillitis, but clearly not delicious enough to warrant risking it – a failure in my book.

After nursing my crumbled confidence for several days I swerved off the rocky path of coconut wafers to try my hand at financiers. I have always admired them - perfectly bite sized and innocent- looking with the flush of raspberry in the centre. They are also simple to make, requiring few ingredients, and turning out both delicious and delicate.

The history is much debated, but some say they were create by nuns of the Order of the Visitation and then adapted by a French baker, Lasne, to sell in the Parisian financial district where their almond content allowed them to keep well in the pockets of bankers. 

They are elegant and dainty, slightly crunchy on the outside, the tender blond crumb perfumed with a slight orange tang and moistened by the burst of raspberry.  They do keep rather well and would bless a summer’s picnic.

Recipe:

Makes 30 (approx)

50g unsalted butter

50g plain flour

160g icing sugar

140g ground almonds

1/2 tsp salt

200g egg whites (6 large eggs)

1/4 tsp almond extract

zest of 1/4 orange 

60g raspberries (minimum of 30 raspberries i.e. 1 per financier)

 Very well-greased and flour- dusted 3 x 12 hole mini cupcake tins (with 2.5cm diameter circles)  OR 1 to be used 3 times

Method:

  1. Melt the butter in a small pan over a medium heat. When completely melted, stir the bottom of the pan continuously until the butter turns a deep gold colour and nutty in aroma. Set aside to cool.
  2. Sieve the flour and icing sugar into large bowl. Stir in the ground almonds and salt. Once combined, pour in the egg whites, almond extract, zest and slightly cooled butter and stir to fully combine. Cover the bowl and allow the mixture to chill in the fridge for 2 hours.
  3. Preheat the oven to 180C.
  4. Spoon the batter into the holes until each is two thirds full. Press a raspberry into the centre of each - the batter should rise to all the way to the top. 
  5. Place in the oven to bake for 10-12 minutes or until light gold in colour. Transfer to a wire rack to cool (to avoid them becoming soggy) or devour immediately. 

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Chewy Triple Chocolate Nutella & Orange Cookies

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Chewy Triple Chocolate Nutella & Orange Cookies

ANTI-VALENTINES ANCIENT ROMAN-STYLE

Chewy Triple Chocolate Nutella & Orange Cookies

Candlelit dinner in a restaurant suddenly eye-wateringly expensive, a single rose rattling in its cellophane wrapper, chocolates filled with chemical cherry liqueur, and greetings cards covered with hearts and teddy bears and hearts and pictures of champagne and hearts: these are contemporary references to St Valentine’s Day. 

How much more seductive would it be to celebrate Lupercalia as the Ancients did?

Chewy Triple Chocolate Nutella & Orange Cookies
Chewy Triple Chocolate Nutella & Orange Cookies

On the 15th February, naked youths of noble birth, anointed with the blood of sacrificed goats, and carrying strips of the animals’ hide, would run through Rome in a spirit of hilarity and lash waiting females in order to promote fertility and assist with pregnancy.

Chewy Triple Chocolate Nutella & Orange Cookies

If this sounds too overtly carnal, how about taking the advice of Ovid in his Ars Amatoria on how to secure a woman or man, how to seduce him or her, and how to keep him or her from being stolen by another? His tips include knowing where to look to find the beloved as he or she will not just fall from heaven. 

Chewy Triple Chocolate Nutella & Orange Cookies
Chewy Triple Chocolate Nutella & Orange Cookies

According to Ovid, the theatre is a particularly good place to meet beautiful women.  He warns men to wear well cut and spotless togas, and to avoid having dirty, long fingernails and visible nasal hairs.

Chewy Triple Chocolate Nutella & Orange Cookies
Chewy Triple Chocolate Nutella & Orange Cookies

 Beware, too, the persuasive effects of low lighting and alcohol which can mask a woman’s true looks, he says. 

Chewy Triple Chocolate Nutella & Orange Cookies
Chewy Triple Chocolate Nutella & Orange Cookies

Women, however, he advises, should use to their advantage all the tricks that cosmetics can offer, while not letting any man observe their application: hide the work in progress, he suggests. Wear simple, unostentatious clothes, revealing a slightly exposed shoulder or upper arm. Sing, play an instrument and learn to play board games, he tells women, and beware of fops.

Chewy Triple Chocolate Nutella & Orange Cookies

But if all this sounds too much like hard work, I heartily recommend that you make these cookies.  Simple to make, they are rich and decadent and infinitely seductive.

Chewy Triple Chocolate Nutella & Orange Cookies
Chewy Triple Chocolate Nutella & Orange Cookies

 

Ingredients (Makes 24)

300g good quality dark chocolate (70% cocoa)

160g Nutella

45g unsalted butter

225g plain flour

35g unsweetened cocoa powder

1/4 baking powder

1/2 tsp salt

4 large eggs

300g caster sugar

finely grated zest of 2 medium-sized oranges

1 tbsp fresh orange juice

80g icing sugar

2 baking sheets, lined with non-stick baking parchment

 

Method

  1. Place a heatproof bowl over a saucepan of boiling water (without the water touching the bottom of the bowl).  Into the bowl break the chocolate into pieces and add in Nutella and butter. Allow to melt slowly, stirring occasionally until it turns glossy, molten and smooth. Remove the bowl from heat and set aside to cool.
  2. In a large bowl, sieve together flour, cocoa powder, baking powder and salt.
  3. In an electric mixer fitter with the paddle, or in a large bowl by hand, beat together eggs and sugar for 2-3 minutes until creamy, thick and pale.  Pour in orange zest and juice and beat again to combine.
  4. Pour the molten chocolate mix into the egg mixture and very gently fold together so as not to lose the aeration. Pour in the sieved dry ingredients and, again, fold gently until just combined. 
  5. Cover bowl and let the mixture cool in the fridge for half an hour. 
  6. Preheat oven to 170°C. Sieve icing sugar into a bowl. Remove the cookie dough from the fridge and roll the dough into spheres of about 40g each. Roll each one in the icing sugar to coat thoroughly, then place on the tray, leaving about 5cm space between each.
  7. Place in oven to cook for 8-12 minutes, (checking after 8). They should be soft to the touch and feel slightly undercooked. Remove from oven and set aside to cool. They will continue to cook as they cool. If you can manage to resist them, store in a an airtight container for a week (they get fudgier over time), or freeze in an airtight container for 2 months.
Chewy Triple Chocolate Nutella & Orange Cookies
Chewy Triple Chocolate Nutella & Orange Cookies
Chewy Triple Chocolate Nutella & Orange Cookies

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Firedog

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Firedog

FireDog

A Rolls Royce pulls up neatly against the curb, a proud, gleaming red. The G-Wiz rattles up next to it, and executes a perfect piece of perpendicular parking.  Enter the Range Rover: mud-spattered but in control, it slides in next to the Rolls. Then the Mini arrives, honking to assert itself. The Volvo lines itself alongside the Mini, together with a school bus crammed with screaming children, and a battered black cab. Then a newly licensed Uber decides to swing his Prius into the fray. He nudges the tiny G-Wiz which crumples against the Rolls Royce.

FireDog
FireDog

The Roller hoots with disgust. This in turn alarms the bus driver who lets go of the hand brake and slides diagonally into the Volvo, crushing itself up against the Mini which then overturns. The police car rushes in to clear a path, bouncing off the heap of crushed metal. It surges forward and, much to the surprise of all the drivers, ends up on top of the Prius. 

FireDog

With much shattered glass, screaming, and whining, thick black engine fluids drip from one car to the next, like the tahini molasses mulch pooling into the thyme-infused ricotta. A slug of red-spiced scrambled eggs slips out of the copper pot into the macerated cherry-topped ricotta.

FireDog
FireDog

Vanilla butter smears itself against the dollop of oily harissa which mixes into the citrus- and basil-infused tomatoes.  A lemony chunk of poppy seed-coated cucumber slides into the pot of strawberry jam. 

FireDog
FireDog

“What would you like to try next?” I ask my dining companion, as I work out how to play this game.

“Just give me two minutes to think,” he mumbles, frowning, as he tries to climb out of the pothole of mezze-induced confusion. “Ok, the halloumi please”. 

FireDog

I shuffle through the tiles, terracotta bowls, mini jars and copper pots to dig out the halloumi, which, surprisingly, turns out to be deliciously golden and molten. He lifts up the clay pot of lamb kofta to do a mid-air switch over, but in doing so the feta is upturned into the lemon curd, and the basket of bread - pitta, sesame-coated milk bread, and some other flatbread - plummets to the floor, its contents scattering under the table opposite.

FireDog
FireDog

At this point, the cheery and oblivious waitress arrives at our culinary game of Rush Hour with our bulgar and honey roast butternut squash and pomegranate salad. Conversation turns into a balloon debate: which dishes to sacrifice, which to keep. We end up handing them all over to make space for the salad. My plate is a quagmire of sweet, sticky, ricotta, honey, meaty harissa mulch, echoing the chaos of my brain and palate. 

FireDog
FireDog

We look up to recover from the tumult, and find ourselves staring into the cartoon eyes of a loin- clothed Neanderthal and a pink-cloaked witch proffering pomegranates. Not encouraged by the decor but urged on by greed, I try a couple of mouthfuls of the salad. It is fresh, sweet and nutty - far more balanced than any of the preceding dishes. Full, but with mouth, mind and stomach in turmoil, we leave the dark wood and neon enclosure that is Firedog - a supposedly Aegean restaurant, but one for which I doubt Odysseus would interrupt his travels.

FireDog
FireDog

Food: 4/10

Price: ££(££)

Ambience: 4/10

Loos: 7/10

Suitable for: nightmares, a place to go where everywhere else is booked

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A Jelfian Odyssey

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A Jelfian Odyssey

Beetroot

We were plunged into the depths of the most labyrinthine of Moroccan souks with a texturally titillating starter of spiced chickpeas, roast Chantenay carrots flecked with crunchy pomegranate gems and creamy curd.  It was not a long journey thence to the Welsh influenced Moroccan tagine, a sublime encounter with meat (possibly reared by one of the dinner guests himself) rendered almost molten after a three hour simmer.

Butternut Squash

Then, tossed on the tides of wine dark seas, we were carried away. We hugged the North African coast for as long as we could, before migrating across the undulating hills and majestic mountains to Southern Italy for a Marsala-imbued tiramisu. The brawn (in the muscular sense, not gelatinous pig's head) evident in the hand- whipped mascarpone elevated the dish further - quite unreplicable by any kitchen machinery. The plank of cheeses that had, tantalisingly, been perfuming the room, was brought before us, where the Mont D'Or led to much fantasising about entire rooms plastered with its moreish viscosity.

Brussels Sprouts

It is a great shame that the refried beans from the last visit failed to make an appearance. I can only assume that this was a conscious decision in order to allow a full coverage of fur to develop before extricating them from the fridge for medicinal use or a kimchi style delicacy.

Pomegranate

Each guest launched him/herself into a dulcet kazoo cacophony. Renditions of Katy Perry's I Kissed a Girl and Amy Winehouse’s Rehab were boldly modernised and subtly nuanced. Unfortunately, mastering the kazoo did not come as naturally to some as to others, and attempts to challenge the traditional method of kazooing included pursing one’s lips in flautist style, blowing from the other end, and, from one unlikely crystal meth abuser, filling the hollow with water in bong style.

Carrot

Post dinner, we journeyed further north and, interestingly, back in time to the Iron Age, where the Hootenanny, famed for its reggae and hip hop nights, was facing a hairy invasion of retired Celtic warriors. In a show of true masculinity, clothing was scarce and moobs were on full show, quivering brawnily (the gelatinous pig’s head kind, not the muscular) along to the stirring beats of the three competing drummers. Caught in their own time loop, and not ashamed to recognise they were on to a good thing, they singled out the crowd's favourite 12 minute song and played it on repeat for the entire evening.

Peppers

The journey ended here for the adventurers to rest and recover before the next leg of the journey, even further north.

 

NB: Photos are for visual stimulation only and are in no way related to the feast.

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MINI CHOCOLATE & RASPBERRY MERINGUES

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MINI CHOCOLATE & RASPBERRY MERINGUES

Mini Chocolate & Raspberry Meringues

According to most newspapers, January should be the month of indulgence deprivation. With the weather cold, grey and bleak, we’re being told that now is the time to eliminate everything that affords even a hint of pleasure. I admit that it may be time for me to cut down on the panettone habit: I caught myself tearing off fleecy chunks of the ambrosial, yellow, sultana-studded fluff and crowding my mouth until it overflowed. 

Mini chocolate & raspberry meringue

My brother actually created a time-saving method which anticipated the bolus of food that would develop in the gullet by compressing the panettone in his hands first before devouring. I was impressed.

Mini chocolate & raspberry meringue
Mini chocolate & raspberry meringue

Fortunately, but lamentably, my mother prevented me from importing from Italy to England the 5 kg of panettone that I’d bought (with the pretence of giving as gifts). To cope with the withdrawal symptoms, I made these instead.  

Mini chocolate & raspberry meringue
Mini chocolate & raspberry meringue

I refuse to deprive myself of pleasure - these can be a happy halfway house. So numerous that they can be popped into the mouth in one without anyone noticing that the supply has been reduced, so light that they can be enjoyed without having to loosen waistbands to accommodate them, and so small that they make gorgeous bejewelled petit fours at dinner parties without the guilt attached, in my case, to eating an entire pavlova.  

Mini chocolate & raspberry meringue
Mini Chocolate & Raspberry Meringues
Mini Chocolate & Raspberry Meringues

The dark chocolate base adds a touch of sophistication and slight bitterness to undercut the sweetness, and the raspberry provides that much needed astringency to cut through it. Crunch, creaminess, chocolate and tang, all in one mouthful – who needs 5kg of panettone? 

Mini Chocolate & Raspberry Meringues
Mini Chocolate & Raspberry Meringues
Mini Chocolate & Raspberry Meringues

Ingredients

(makes 70 mini meringues - halve the recipe if you would like fewer)

90g egg white (the whites of 3 large eggs)

175g caster sugar

150g good quality dark chocolate (70%)

200ml double cream

350g raspberries (approximately 1 per meringue)

30g icing sugar (optional)

2 large baking sheets lined with baking parchment

A piping bag fitted with a round 1cm nozzle to be used twice: first to pipe the meringue, and then the cream.  It can be marginally larger or smaller than 1cm. If you lack a piping bag, you can use a freezer bag and cut off a corner to replicate a 1 cm sized nozzle.

Method

  1. Preheat oven to 130°C. Pour egg whites into an electric mixer fitted with a whisk and whisk on high speed until soft peaks form.  It should be foamy in appearance.
  2. Switch the speed to medium-high and pour in caster sugar one tablespoon at a time. Once each tablespoon has dissolved into the mass of egg white, add the next. Keep whisking until the meringue forms hard peaks and is glossy i.e. the meringue should hold its shape when drawn into peaks with a spoon and the tracks of the whisk are visible in its surface.
  3. Spoon the meringue mixture into the piping bag.  Holding the nozzle at a right angle to the baking parchment, pipe 3cm diameter sized meringue peaks onto the parchment in rows, leaving 3cm between each one (they expand slightly as they bake). Place in the oven and cook for 45 minutes, checking after 30 minutes. Once cooked, switch the oven off and allow to sit for another 15 minutes in the oven. They should remain pale and be crisp on the outside and slightly soft in the centre. Remove cooled meringues from the oven, and set them aside.
  4. Break the chocolate into pieces and place in a bowl over a pot of simmering water. Don't allow the water to touch the base of the chocolate bowl. Don't melt the chocolate directly in a pan on the stove as this causes it to seize. Allow to melt, stirring occasionally until glossy and smooth. Remove from the heat. Lightly holding the meringues at the sides with thumb and forefinger, dip the base of each meringue into the molten chocolate so that it coats the base and up to 1cm on the sides of the meringue. Place the dipped meringues back on to the baking parchment. Once the whole batch is coated, place the tray in the freezer for 10 minutes to allow them to set.
  5. In an electric mixer fitted with a whisk (or by hand if you’re feeling strong), whisk the cream until thickened. The tracks of the whisk should be visible and it should hold light peaks. Spoon the cream into a piping bag and pipe about a teaspoon of cream on to each meringue. Place a raspberry on each cream peak, face down. Sieve icing sugar over, if desired, and serve. 
  6. Best eaten on the day but the meringues without topping can be kept in an airtight container for a couple of weeks in a cool dry cupboard, and for a month in the freezer.
Mini Chocolate & Raspberry Meringues

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Dickie Fitz

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Dickie Fitz

Dickie Fitz

If they had stayed for a little longer, they might have realised that the story I was telling was one of salaciousness, survival of 6.3 Richter scale earthquakes, 800 years of in-breeding in hidden Tuscan villages, and scandal. Alas, they missed out. All three couples came, perched for 10 minutes or so, before murmuring into the waiter’s ear something which meant that they then proceeded to shuffle across the crisp white and mustard-toned restaurant to somewhere where they could engage in their own (much more dull) tales. Admittedly, at the age of ten my teacher did declare that I was a foghorn, but in this situation it was not the decibels that were the issue, but rather the proximity of the tables.

Dickie Fitz

I don’t know whether it’s part of the Australian vibe, or whether the blinding whiteness of the restaurant has some sort of narcotic effect. Whichever it is, the waiters just seemed very lax. At the back of both upstairs and downstairs dining areas there are, at an initial glance, what appear to be bars. But as the meal progressed, and I winked, waved and stared until my eyes my eyes began to water at waiters in the hope of catching their attention, I realised their hidden purpose: they are the restaurant version of the bird watcher’s hide - a camouflaged refuge where under the guise of polishing glasses the staff can spectate and judge the gorging and imbibing. Eventually, I managed to snare a waitress before she shuffled behind the hide.

Dickie Fitz

As an obsessive fan of MasterChef Australia (I refuse to watch the British version), I was rather excited by the promise of an Australian-Pan-Pacific menu, and plumped for the Thai chicken salad: fresh, crisp and crunchy to the point where I could feel my jaw muscles ache the next day. It was definitely palatable, albeit lacking that sweet sticky, spice-kicked tang that the word “Thai” promises. My dining companion enjoyed what was apparently smashed avocado, charred tomato, feta and grilled sourdough, but which was hard to make out under the crisp kale shroud.

Dickie Fitz

Our meal ended at the two dishes. We felt rather abandoned by the waiters, who did not even try to maximise spend-per-cover by offering us dessert or drinks menus. Their tactic must have worked to some bizarre extent as I returned to the restaurant some weeks later, mainly out of curiosity: spiced halloumi with falafel, preserved lemon, and pickle salad for me. Crunchy and tender in all the right places, bitter, zesty, sharp and sweet, it was a success. For dessert, a delicate twist on the pavlova - a soft set lemony curd, berries and basil infused cream - in no way satisfying, but refreshing all the same.

Dickie Fitz

So, in summary, my experience of Dickie Fitz was crowd-shy waiters, not outstandingly innovative yet refreshing, clean, tasty food, and (squashed together) tables that are actually bookable for brunch, an increasing rarity these days.

Food: 7/10

Service 4/10

Vibe: 8/10

Loos: 6/10

Suitable for: brunch, celebrations, actually being able to book a table, vegetarians

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A Tuscan Anti-Christmas

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A Tuscan Anti-Christmas

A Tuscan Anti-Christmas

I know, despite my family's secularity, that, traditionally, people rush to inspect their suspended stockings bursting with treats. I check my socks before I slip them on for the morning walk - the closest Ill get to that is a scorpion, most likely dead around this time of year, but you can never be sure. 

A Tuscan Anti-Christmas

 

Breakfast: a succulent amalgam of a hand-torn chunk of last night's panettone, a dried fig, a boiled egg I hadn't managed to eat the day beforea savoiardi biscuit (or two - they comprise egg, sugar and a touch of flour, but mainly air, so one clearly isn't going to hit the mark), and a palmful of my brother's Krave cereal. This package claims to be a kind of roulette, where you never know whether you'll be hit by the flavour of caramel or hazelnut or milk or white chocolate.  But each nugget of Krave tastes universally like the same sweet chemicalsI wash all this down with a swig of lemon soda.   

A Tuscan Anti-Christmas

 

Apparently, the most shocking thing is that we dont have a tree. Enough wildlife manages to creep its way indoors without our having to rip up part of the countryside and insert it in the living room: two summers ago there was a gorgeous infestation of gem-like bugs that clustered against window panes. The ribbons of evergreen Cyprus trees that twist round the patchwork hillsides is the closest we get, I suppose. 

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It takes a couple of hours after shouting its time to go’ before everyone assembles by the car. In a twist of fate sharply influenced by my mothers taste, we all seem to be wearing navy pea coats this year. The words Christmas’ and jumper’ do not dare fall into the same sentence.  

 

Being in the car doesn't actually guarantee that were going to move. First on the agenda is an argument, the rules for which are 1) it has to be founded on minute pedantry, 2) someone has to get out of the car (or at least threaten to do soin order to flounce and revel in the argument that he/she has set in motion, and 3) shouting levels have to rise above 80 decibels.   

A Tuscan Anti-Christmas

 

Before we can reach our lunch destination we have to endure the downside of being immersed in the majestic, rolling Tuscan countryside.  It is a requirement that each passenger feels on the point of throwing up.  The car twists around hair pin bends, cliff side meanders until finally we reach a little town, and the place where the oldest human settlements of central Italy were discovered, dating back to neo-Paleolithic times, only 80,000 or so years before Jesus was born. 

A Tuscan Anti-Christmas

 

The square around which the town is built is aglow with winter sun, and empty apart from the bench where a squad of oldies tend to gather (but not speak).  Christmas has managed to invade, but in a rather awkward fashion with snowmen made out of plastic cups jarring with the baked yellow ochre of the traditional farmacia and chapel. The combined scent of cheese, blood & boar bristle wafts across the square from the local macelleria 

A Tuscan Anti-Christmas

 

Vincenzo, who bears a semblance to Mario (from Mario Kart), stands in front of his restaurant toward the back of the square. Over his belly plumped with years of his own tagliatelle all'aglione - a mark of his own kitchen excellence - a stained apron is stretched taut. He beams, and booms: Buon Natale. 

A Tuscan Anti-Christmas

 

No menus for us. Instead we let Alessio reel off the daily selection despite the fact it is a very close variation of that of the day before, and the day before that, and that of summer fifteen years ago when we first stumbled upon Da Vincenzo 

Bruschetta al pomodoro - nothing like the weak imitations found in the UK, the tomatoes are plump, and bleed their tangy and garlic infused juices into the unsalted bread. And, of course, all is doused in Octobers verdant olive oil.  By the time we leave, our joints are more than lubricated, and squeak-free. 

The food is simple, and all the better for it. This is a cuisine without pretence, with no picky squiggles of sauces or cream-laden pastes. It is food that needs no justification.  

Pici allaglione - the hand-rolled, worm-like pasta which is a local delicacy, and perhaps what influenced Dahl's The Twits. 

Zucchini alla griglia  simple, yet not to be underestimated - almost peppery in their charred perfection. 

Ribollita - the twice cooked soup, at the heart of which sits a sponge of soup-saturated unsalted bread. 

Filetto di manzo  tender beef, crisp on the exterior and molten in the middle. 

Patate aroste - whose name is a thin disguise for the fact that they are simply media to bear oil, and all the better for it.  

 

No dessert, no Christmas pudding, no pies, no chocolates, no candy canes, no crackers, no turkey, no stuffing. Welcome to the anti-Christmas.

A Tuscan Anti-Christmas

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Cinnamon Apple Crumble Pies

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Cinnamon Apple Crumble Pies

IMG_8392.jpg

This is the cinnamon apple crumble pie 2.0. Tried, tested, and enhanced...Cinnamon Apple Crumble Pies Soft, crunchy, crumbly, fresh, sweet, and on the cusp of sour – the Gail’s Bakery apple crumble cake is what I crave.  It’s the ultimate winter treat, although I gaze longingly through the bakery window at them year-round.

Cinnamon Apple Crumble Pies

 

 

Cinnamon Apple Crumble PiesI bought the Gail’s Artisan Bakery Cookbook a few months ago in the hope that they had divulged the secret of their signature apple crumble cake. They hadn’t.

Cinnamon Apple Crumble PiesCinnamon Apple Crumble Pies

As a result I’ve just had to develop my own recipe – more wholesome, with more cinnamon and less sugar, I’ve heard they may even be superior…

IMG_8388

Cinnamon Apple Crumble Pies

Cinnamon Apple Crumble Pies

Cinnamon Apple Crumble Pies

 

Ingredients

(Makes 15)

Pastry

320g (11.3 oz) wholegrain spelt flour

110g (3.9oz) icing sugar

2 tsp cinnamon

½ tsp salt

165g (5.8oz) butter, roughly chopped into cubes

1 large egg, beaten

Apple Filling

700 (1lb 5oz) grams of peeled, cored and coarsely grated Bramley apples (about 3 large apples)

70g (2.5oz) caster sugar

Crumble topping

80g (2.8oz) wholegrain spelt flour

45g (1.6oz) oats

45g (1.6oz) caster sugar

50g (1.7oz)  butter

2 tsp cinnamon

¼ tsp salt

15 hole muffin/cupcake tin, greased (usually they come in 12s, in which case you will need 2 x muffin trays

 

Method

Pastry

  1. In a blender, blitz together dry ingredients. Then add in the butter and pulse until the mixture resembles damp sand. Pour in the egg and continue to pulse until the mixture clumps together into a dough. Avoid mixing it more than necessary.
  2. Flatten the dough roughly into a disc and wrap in cling film or baking parchment. Chill in the freezer while you make the other elements.

Apple Filling

  • Place all ingredients in a pan and stir over a high heat for about 5 minutes until the apple turns soft but some texture still remains.  Strain the mixture using a sieve, pressing down to get rid of excess liquid (about 250ml, which incidentally tastes like a delicious mulled cider).  Set aside to cool.

Crumble

  • Place all ingredients in a blender and pulse until the mixture resembles damp sand.

Assembly

  1. Preheat an oven to 180˚C.
  2. On a floured surface, roll out the chilled pasty to a thickness of 0.5cm. Cut the pastry into circles with an area similar to that of the muffin tin holes (about 8-10cm), and press each circle in the holes. You may need to patchwork the pieces together.
  3. Prick the pastry lining the muffin holes with a fork, and bake in the oven for 8-10 minutes, or cooked through and beginning to golden slightly.
  4. Take the tin out of the oven and spoon 2tbsp of the cooked apple into each pastry shells. Top the cakes by spooning a few tablespoons of the crumb topping over each cake, patting it down and then sprinkling the rest of the mixture over.  I like to clump some of it together before scattering it over in order to add further texture and rustic appeal.
  5. Bake in the oven for 8-10 minutes until the crumble topping is golden and crisp. Serve hot or cold.

Cinnamon Apple Crumble Pies

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Morroccan Spiced Linzer Jam Cookies

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Morroccan Spiced Linzer Jam Cookies

Afternoon tea.  What do you think of when someone says those words? Tiers of fluffy isosceles sandwiches, miniature entremets layered with fruit, caramel, and chocolate, and maybe a scone glistening with strawberries.  Crisp napkins, high ceilings, the tinkling of fine bone china…

Near where I live there is an Austrian tea room.  The window is filled with garish glace cherry- adorned, deflated pastries, crusted squiggles of festering cream, and opera cake melding into a brown sludge. It opened 60 years ago, and the décor and pastries appear not to have been refreshed since.

Morroccan Spiced Linzer Jam Cookies

Inside, it is dark and cramped, and the airless atmosphere is thickened with hot breath and the oversweet smell of fat and sugar.

Their Linzer biscuits, however, remind me of Jammie Dodgers – those jam-filled, shortbread biscuits of my childhood that only other people’s mothers allowed – and inspired me to re- interpret them. 

These have a slight Moroccan edge: spiced, delicate with a slight chewiness, filled with the tangy conserve of your choice.

I like marmalade for the tart/bitter contrast against the sweetness of the pastry, but strawberry also works well.  Of course, you can go for any shape, but I am rather taken by the cog-like –quirky take on a Jammie Dodger look.

Ingredients

290g (10.125 ounces) white spelt flour (or plain flour if unavailable)

140g (5 ounces) ground almonds

100g (3.5 ounces) caster sugar

¼ tsp salt

2 ½ tsp cinnamon

¼ tsp ground cloves

¼ tsp almond extract

1 tsp grated lemon zest (about ½ lemon)

1 tsp grated orange zest (about ½ medium orange)

225g (8 ounces) unsalted butter

200g (7 ounces) marmalade or jam of choice (I used marmalade and strawberry)

30g (1 ounce) icing sugar

Large and small cookie cutters (I used 7cm and 3.5cm diameter rings)

2 large baking sheets, lined with baking parhcment

Method

  1. Pour flour, ground almonds, caster sugar, salt cinnoman, cloves,orange and lemons zest, and almond extract into a food processor and pulse until fully combined.  Add in the chopped butter and pulse again until the mixture forms a damp sand-like texture.  Keep pulsing until it clumps tighter to form a dough.
  2. Divide the dough into two rounds and flatten both onto sheets of baking parchment, wrap them and place them in the freezer for about 20 minutes or the fridge for an hour.
  3. Preheat the oven to 160˚C (325˚F). Remove the disks of dough from the freezer/fridge – if they are too firm to roll, let them sit for a few minutes.  Ona thoroughly floured board, roll one disk out to a 3mm (1/8 inch) thickness. Cut out as many cookies as possible and set aside the scraps.  Space the disks out on the baking trays as you go. Repeat with the second disk and use the smaller cutter to cut out small holes from the rounds.  Press together the accumulated scraps and roll out again.  Make sure there are an equal number of whole circles to circles with a cut out circle.  A tip to avoid the cutter sticking in the dough is to dip it in flour first.
  4. Place the trays in the oven and bake for 12- 15 minutes until the cookies are golden but still soft to the touch – they will continue to cook as they cool. When cool, for aesthetic effect, sieve the icing sugar onto the rounds with the circles cut out of them. Then spread a teaspoon of the jam/marmalade onto the complete circles, and lightly press the cut-out layer on top.  Devour, delicately, of course…
Morroccan Spiced Linzer Jam Cookies
Morroccan Spiced Linzer Jam Cookies

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Pollen Street Social Review

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Pollen Street Social Review

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& a glimpse inside the kitchen...Pollen Street Social Review

Last week I went to a blind wine-tasting in a stuffy carpeted room on the top floor of a Mayfair pub. On the table, columns of bottles were massed, awaiting palatal analysis and identification.  One of the sweaty, post-work crowd sidled up to me and refused to leave my side the entire evening.  Not for any flattering reason: he had arrived drunk at the alcohol imbibition.  The sole potential benefit of his presence was his vaunted knowledge of wines, gained from downing over fifty years’ worth of ethanol. Wine after wine he sipped, swirled, glugged, holding each up to the window despite the fading light. Glass after glass he swigged and squirted from one side of his mouth to the other, patting his lips, flipping his tongue up to his palette  in order “to catch the aftertaste”, sucking and squelching.  “Taste the vanilla in that”, “feel the syrupy smoothness of this”, he said, nodding sagely.  1/9 of his answers were correct…

Pollen Street Social Review

 

To me, this is all a manifestation of the emperor’s new clothes syndrome which may sometimes be applied to Michelin-starred restaurants. Do I really want to dine on fussy little squiggles of substance that I have to chase with another globule of something or other so that the perfect scientific reaction can effervesce at the back end of my tongue?  However, Jason Atherton’s soon to be double Michelin-starred flagship is not in this category.  An idyll amongst the raucous, tourist-ridden bustle of Regent Street, Pollen Street Social sits opposite its sister restaurant, Little Social (see review here). Its style is unfussy, open, and clean, with attention to detail: even our bags were given individual stools.

Pollen Street Social Review

 

Before we had even turned the page of the menu, a selection of amuse bouches materialised: dainty sweet corn muffins topped with delicate swirls of dill and cucumber cream, beetroot and blackberry filled tuiles that burst with sweet vinegary freshness, and my favourite, a Jerusalem artichoke crème.  These were followed by cups of mushroom consommé topped with delicate parmesan foam, salty and meaty while being vegetarian.

Pollen Street Social Review

To start, I chose the neeps and tatties in a mushroom ragout- a wonderful coil of tender turnip ribbons generously grated with umami Berkswell cheese.  I could have easily devoured my dining companions’ portions as well.

Pollen Street Social Review Pollen Street Social ReviewPollen Street Social ReviewOut of the whirr and buzz there then appeared the sprightly figure of Tiziano, the junior manager, who filled the room with his energy and excitable charm. He whisked me off to view the upstairs kitchen and the pass – a dark, orange- lit forge, tantalisingly situated behind glass.

Pollen Street Social Review

 

Pollen Street Social Review

Pollen Street Social Review

Pollen Street Social ReviewPollen Street Social ReviewIt was sprung with energy but, unlike the amped up drama so often portrayed on TV, it was at the same time controlled and calm. Whilst fixing plates, advising chefs on the pass, and approving the dishes that flowed past us on wooden board, Dale (Head Chef) talked me through the dishes.

Pollen Street Social Review

Our main courses were served as soon as I returned to my seat: the juiciest of chicken breast with a skin so crisp that even I (spurner of skin) couldn’t resist – its earthy savouriness was contrasted with the little pops of peas and broad beans, underpinned once more by the seasonal buttery, almost molten, girolles. The wild garlic flowers added to the dish with their fresh savouriness. My dining companions’ lamb and gnocchi dishes were also successes, although if there were any criticism it would be the mushroom theme that was developing throughout the vegetarian dishes – a non fungi fan would have had difficulty.  In addition, my companion found some of the mushrooms somewhat too heavily salted.

Pollen Street Social Review

 

Pollen Street Social ReviewPollen Street Social ReviewWe decamped to the dessert bar to watch the pastry chefs practising their craft. First, a palate cleanser which was one of the highlights of the meal, straddling the line between savoury and sweet, and without risking losing stomach room for dessert: light yogurt foam with fairy-thin shards of meringue and a verdant and astringent basil sorbet.

Pollen Street Social Review

Pollen Street Social ReviewPollen Street Social ReviewPollen Street Social ReviewWe watched as cylinders of tempered chocolate were filled with an aerated milk mousse and crumbled sticky and crunchy caramelised puffed rice.  A chocolate disc was delicately placed on top like a lid, and adorned with a gold leaf foil, and then accompanied by a rocher of honey ice cream.  My dining companions' poached berries with lime and cream cheese sorbet with honey sugar tuile were also a hit. These were chased by a velvety chocolate mousse, and an almond and cherry financier, and a passion fruit and blood orange pâté de fruit, as well as a hazelnut crème entremets for the road…just in case.

Pollen Street Social Review

Pollen Street Social ReviewPollen Street Social ReviewDelicious, unfussy, comfortable and exciting – this is one of the finest dining experiences I have had in the last few years.  And I can say that without any fear of an emperor’s new clothes diagnosis.

Food: 9.5/10

Ambience: 8/10

Service: 10/10

Price: ££££

Loos: 9/10

Pollen Street Social Review

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Strawberry Crumble Bars

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Strawberry Crumble Bars

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Strawberry Crumble Bars What’s your crumble-to-fruit ratio?  If you’re the kind who favours a preponderance of stewed fruit with an insubstantial fairy dusting of oaty-flour, turn away now.  If you lean towards the lavish when it comes to crumble proportion - good.  Read on…

Strawberry Crumble Bars

Strawberry Crumble Bars Strawberry Crumble Bars

I have experienced many a crumble: from damson to mulberry to cherry to apple, from autumn to winter to spring to summer. But regardless of the lusciousness of the interior, the crumbles that garner the most attention, that leave people scratching way at the remaining crumbs that have become forged to the side of the pan in yearning for more, are the ones with a superabundance of crumble topping.

Strawberry Crumble Bars

Crunchy, nutty, warming and eminently comforting – this is what a good crumble should be.  Enough so that you don’t worry about rationing the crumble in your bowl to suit the amount of fruit – enough so that every mouthful has a good proportion of both.

IMG_5024A good crumble, as with so many things, should leave you wanting more.

Strawberry Crumble Bars

But what if you don’t want to have to face the risk of eating the whole pot by mistake – or at least you if do want to be able to eat the whole lot, do so in a more measured way?

Strawberry Crumble Bars

What if you want to extend the experience beyond the comfort of your kitchen i.e. a portable crumble?

Strawberry Crumble Bars

Try these – fruity, nutty, fresh, and summery, with a subtle tang and not overly-sweet.  They are extremely quick and easy to make and, more importantly, the crumble–to-fruit ratio is verging on perfect…

Strawberry Crumble Bars

 

Ingredients

Base

115g sugar

½ tsp baking powder

210g white spelt flour (substitute any flour of your choice: plain, gluten-free or otherwise)

115g unsalted butter, roughly chopped

½ egg

¼ tsp salt

Finely grated zest of 1/2 orange

Juice of ½ orange

2 generous cups of strawberries, quartered

1 tbsp sugar

2 tbsp cornstarch

1 tsp vanilla bean paste (substitute with 1 tsp of vanilla bean extract if unavailable)

 

Crumble topping

20g unsalted butter

40g sugar

70g oats

30g finely chopped walnuts (remove if allergic)

50g white spelt flour (substitute with any flour of your choice, plain, gluten-free or otherwise)

Pinch of salt

20cm x 20cm tin lined with baking parchment (or a pan of similar area)

 

Method

  1. Preheat oven to 190˚C. Pour sugar, baking powder, flour, salt, and zest in a blender and pulse to combine.  Add butter and egg, and pulse until fully combined and has reached a slightly clumpy, damp sand consistency.  Pour this into the lined baking pan, and press down to create an even base layer.
  2. In a bowl, stir together chopped strawberries, orange juice, orange zest and cornstarch. Sprinkle evenly over the base layer (including the fruit juices.)
  3. Make the topping by pulsing together the butter, sugar, oats, flour and salt until fully combined and sand-like in texture. Stir in the walnuts, then sprinkle the mixture over the strawberries.
  4. Bake in oven for 30 – 40 minutes until the top is golden brown and the base is cooked through. Make sure to check after 20 minutes - you may need to cover the crumble with tin foil to prevent the top from catching (depending on your oven’s temperament). Once cooked, remove from the oven and slice into squares.  Eat immediately or later.

Strawberry Crumble Bars

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The Best Bircher Muesli

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The Best Bircher Muesli

'Oats: a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people’ Samuel Johnson, The Dictionary of the English Language, 1755

If I were the type of person that leafed (ironically) through Cosmo, and stumbled across one of those lazy, page-filling content, tree diagrams which happened to ask “what is your spirit animal?”, I know what mine would be. A horse.  Well, at least that’s what it would have been during the second year of my time at university in terms of comestibles…

Essay crises necessitate fuel in order to feed the adrenaline and, for me, that fuel came in the form of oats.

When you have a 9 am deadline approaching, and there is only one hour remaining, every minute is precious - so there is no time to spare for cooking oats over the hob until they break down into a creamy mulch.

The Best Bircher Muesli

That’s the excuse I gave myself.  Instead, I developed the rather grotesque habit of eating oats straight from the packet, raw and desiccated. In my maddened and pressured state, I savoured the clagginess of the oats, where you can’t quite conjure up enough saliva to swallow them.  Ideal.

I have since moved on from this stage (with the very occasional relapse) to a more acceptable way of dealing with my love of oats: Bircher muesli, invented by Bircher Benner, a pioneer of raw foodism, in the late 19th century as a way of curing his jaundice.  It worked.

I feel, somewhat justifiably, that it runs in my blood (thick & creamy): my great-great-uncle was a frequent patient at Benner’s rather avant garde  Swiss raw food clinic and, one sunny day, he stepped down from a plane on an impromptu visit from Scotland to South Africa with no clothes besides the ones on his back, a vegetable juicing contraption which he trailed behind him on a rickety little cart, and a proselytising passion for Bircher muesli.

The Best Bircher Muesli

I have tried many a Bircher muesli, from Swiss versions to Vietnamese attempts, but I feel I have concocted the ultimate version (excuse my arrogance).  Creamy, healthy, juicy, and exotic, it’s effectively manna, and I would happily have it for every meal of the day (jaundiced or not).

The Best Bircher Muesli  (Serves 5)

Ingredients

2 Braeburn apples, grated

Juice of 1/2 lemon

200ml orange juice

200g natural yogurt

200g almond and coconut milk (can be substituted with dairy or non-dairy alternatives)

3 tbsp maple syrup

1 tsp vanilla bean paste (if you can’t get hold of this, omit it, or substitute with ½ tsp vanilla extract)

50g desiccated coconut, lightly toasted in a pan on a low heat until pale gold)

200g porridge oats

Pinch of salt

200g of fresh fruit of your choice (blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, figs, sliced banana work well)

40g coconut chips (optional but adds great texture)

Method

  1. In a large bowl mix together all the ingredients apart from the fresh fruit and optional coconut chips. If you are making this the night before, cover the bowl with cling film and place in the fridge overnight to let the oats soak up the flavours.  If you are serving the muesli immediately, stir the mixture for a couple of minutes to break down the oats until they are creamy.
  2. If you are leaving the muesli overnight, allow it to come to room temperature before serving. Scatter mixed berries and fruits and coconut chips over the top and serve.

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Triple Coffee & Caramelised Walnut Cake

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Triple Coffee & Caramelised Walnut Cake

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 How to bake and stay (reasonably) in shape. Triple Coffee & Caramelised Walnut Cake

I am often asked how it is that I am not obese.  I am by no means super skinny, but people wonder how I avoid rolling around the place when I am seemingly baking the whole time and have little resistance to delicious things.  So, here’s my secret.  Have a go.

Triple Coffee & Caramelised Walnut Cake

 

What I need: a running machine; a radio; an oven; a timer

Triple Coffee & Caramelised Walnut Cake

What I do:

Pour the batter into the cake tin, lovingly smooth the surface over with a spatula. One lick of the spatula before it goes in the sink (just a little indulgence). Carefully open the oven door, and bend down slowly so that the batter remains level.  Place the cake tin tenderly on the rack. Set the oven timer.  22 minutes.  Then GO.

Triple Coffee & Caramelised Walnut Cake

Run up the stairs, two at a time.  That’s one minute either side to rush back down.  Turn up the radio. Leap on to the treadmill, and run. 10 mph minimum. 20 mins to go.  Sweat, pound, sweat.  15 mins.  Beyoncé’s screaming.  Oven beeps.  Run back down (Beyoncé’s mumbling). Open oven door, skewer the cake.  Damn - not cooked. Rip out a sheet of tin foil. Cover the cake.  Burn hand.  Set timer: 7 mins more.  Repeat process until skewer comes out clean.  Place cake on rack and allow to cool.

Stretch and shower.

Hover over the cake with a knife.

Triple Coffee & Caramelised Walnut Cake

You can make the cake sans-icing by simply halving the recipe and, before serving, dusting with a little icing sugar.Triple Coffee & Caramelised Walnut Cake

 

Ingredients

Cake

200g butter, at room temperature

170g caster sugar

30g light brown muscovado sugar

2 tbsp ground coffee

¼ tsp salt

70g toasted walnuts, ground to a fine sand

4 large eggs, beaten

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 ½ tsp instant coffee, dissolved in as little hot water as possible to make a smooth paste

240g self-rising flour, sieved

2 x 8 inch cake tins, greased and with bases lined with a circle of baking parchment

 

Coffee Syrup

40g golden syrup

50g caster sugar

2 tbsp instant coffee

100ml boiling water

 

Coffee Icing

300g butter, at room temperature

450g icing sugar

1 ½ tsp vanilla

2 tbsp instant coffee dissolved in as little hot water as possible to make a smooth paste

¼ tsp salt

 

Caramelised walnuts

60g walnuts

2 tbsp caster sugar

3 tbsp water

Method

  1. Preheat oven to 180˚C. Using an electric mixer, or with a vigorous hand, in a large bowl beat together the butter, caster sugar, muscovado, ground coffee and salt until light and fluffy.
  2. In a separate bowl, beat together the eggs, vanilla and dissolved instant coffee. Beat this into the butter-sugar-coffee-salt mix.  Once combined, stir in the ground walnuts.
  3. Finally, gently fold the sieved flour into the mixture, being careful not to overbeat. Divide the mixture between the two tins and place in the oven to bake for 25 minutes (checking after 20) or until a skewer comes out clean.
  4. While the cakes are baking, make the coffee syrup. Dissolve the instant coffee in the water and pour into a small pan along with the syrup and sugar.  On a medium high heat, stir until the sugar has dissolved, then allow to simmer for 5 minutes or until it thickens slightly to the consistency of maple syrup.
  5. Remove cakes from oven. Stab them all over with a cake tester or skewer, and spoon the syrup equally over the two cakes.  Set aside on a rack and allow to cool.

Icing

  1. Beat together butter and icing sugar. Once combined, beat in the vanilla, coffee and salt.
  2. Remove the cakes from tins, place one on the serving plate and spread ¼ of the icing on its surface. Place the other cake on top and spread the icing evenly over the cake.

Caramelised Walnuts

  1. In a shallow pan, over a medium-high heat, stir together water and sugar until the sugar has dissolved. Then pour in the walnuts, and continue to stir and coat them until all the water has evaporated.  Decant them on to a sheet of baking parchment, and allow them to cool.
  2. Once cool, chop roughly, and scatter as desired over the cake.

Triple Coffee & Caramelised Walnut Cake

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Spiced Blueberry Tart

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Spiced Blueberry Tart

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Is it just me, or is anyone else sick of logging on to Facebook, innocently hoping to drain away half an hour of one’s day (minimum) by looking at pictures of people one may or may not have half met once trying to prove how much fun they are having by posting pictures of themselves with friends/family, strained smiles stretched across their faces, and who are clearly not that immersed in the fun as they have had to spend half an hour trying to get one decent picture out of the hundred they’ve taken to emblazon it across their Facebook wall and maybe, just maybe, turn it into a cover photo?

And then – BAM - your gaze is diverted,

and you are staring down into the depths of a garishly coloured plastic bowl filled with some unidentifiable artificial gunk, pink fleshy hands massaging some other substance into it to form some putty-like emulsion which is then mushed and squeezed and squidged into a plastic mould, whizzed up, and extruded through a bag and…… oh look, it’s that Gooey Oreo, Jellied Eel and Green Marshmallow Mini Coffee Cup that “you’ve always wanted to make for your slumber party with the gals”.

Here’s an antidote.  It is simple yet sophisticated, humble yet sumptuous, tangy but not cloyingly sweet, and light yet not so light when you’ve had 4+ pieces….

Ingredients

Pastry

200g white spelt flour (can be substituted with plain flour)

100g butter, roughly cubed

2 tbsp icing sugar

¼ tsp salt

1 small egg, beaten

12 x 36cm tart tin, greased and dusted with flour

Blueberry filling

800g frozen blueberries

250g caster sugar

1 tsp cinnamon

½ tsp nutmeg

2 tbsp cornflour

Zest of ½ medium sized orange

Method

  1. Place flour, butter, icing sugar and salt in a food processor, and blitz until it resembles damp sand. Pour in the beaten egg, and pulse until the mixture combines to form a soft dough.  Remove from the processor, wrap in baking parchment and place in the fridge for half an hour (or freezer for 10-15 minutes) – this will prevent the dough from shrinking when it bakes.
  2. Preheat the oven to 180˚C. Lightly dust a surface with flour and roll out the dough in a rough rectangle to 0.5cm thickness. Roll the pastry around a rolling pin and transfer to the tin, pressing it into the fluting (if, indeed, your tin is fluted). Run a knife along the top edge of the tin to remove excess pastry. Prick the base of the pastry a few times with a fork, and place back in the fridge for 30 minutes (or freezer for 10 minutes).
  3. Prepare the pastry for blind baking by lining the inside with a sheet of tin foil and filling it with baking beads to weigh it down while it bakes and to prevent it from shrinking. Place in the oven for 15-20 minutes until the pastry is dry and beginning to turn golden.  If it is cooking too slowly, you can remove the beads and tin foil after 15 minutes and continue to bake.  Remove from oven and set aside to cool.
  4. To make the spiced blueberry filling, place a large pan over a high heat and pour in all the ingredients. Stir continuously until the sugar is dissolved in the juice that runs off the blueberries. When the mixture begins to boil, reduce the heat to medium-high and allow to simmer for 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent it from catching, until the liquid is almost completely reduced and with the viscosity somewhere between a syrup and a jam. Allow to cool to room temperature, then pour into the pre-baked pastry case.
Spiced Blueberry Tart

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Passion Fruit & Coconut Truffles

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Passion Fruit & Coconut Truffles

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Passion Fruit & Coconut Double Chocolate Truffles IMG_4217

My household has recently been beset by a typical problem. My mom rather enjoys pressing the "+”button when ordering from Ocado.  Whereas last week this resulted in a glut of cherries, this week it was passion fruit.   Even after days of bisecting the plum-coloured orbs and slurping up the tangy yellow spawn (sans spoon, and only in the most ladylike way, obviously), the supply remained steady.

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IMG_4237Clearly, truffles were the solution.  Most truffle recipes create a molten ganache centre by simply combining melted chocolate with the flavour/ingredient of choice and a dribble of cream.  Easy?  Perhaps.  Zero depth of flavour? Indeed.  I make a caramel base to add a darker, nuttier complexity.

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This is poured over the dark chocolate to melt it, and the golden toasted coconut is then swirled in with the fresh and tangy passion fruit juice.

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I recommend using good quality dark chocolate – the results are worth it.  The tangy molten ganache is then frozen, later to be formed into spheres.  These are encased in a crisp white chocolate and coconut shell to add a touch of sweetness and contrast of textures.

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The name “passion fruit” does not, as you might assume, come from any aphrodisiac qualities of the fruit.  Rather, it comes from the shape of flower which resembles a crown like that that of thorns around Jesus’ head – thus, passion derives from the "passion of Christ”.  Indeed, these truffles are rather ambrosial – you could even say that eating them is a religious experience.

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Ingredients (makes 50 - halve if strapped for time)

For the Ganache

150g 70% dark chocolate (good quality)

150g caster sugar

150g double cream

10g unsalted butter

10g light brown muscovado sugar

½ tsp salt

70g desiccated coconut

8 passion fruits, sieved to extract about 90ml of juice.

100g icing sugar, sifted

 

Large tray lined with baking parchment

 

For the shell

500g white chocolate

200g desiccated coconut

Pair of surgical gloves (optional)

  1. Chop the dark chocolate roughly, and set it aside in a large heatproof mixing bowl.
  2. To toast the coconut (70g), place a medium frying pan over a medium-high heat, pour the coconut in and stir continuously for 5 -8 minutes until the coconut turns a light golden colour. Add this to the dark chocolate.
  3. Place the caster sugar in saucepan over medium high heat, and when it starts to melt, stir gently with a spatula to avoid the sugar burning around the edges. Push unmelted sugar into the already caramelised sugar to aid the caramelising process.
  4. Once the sugar has turned a rich, dark gold colour, while still on the heat, pour in the cream, whisking all the time. If clumps form, don’t panic: keep whisking over medium low heat, and they will eventually melt.
  5. Once the lumps have dissolved, whisk in the muscovado sugar, butter, vanilla and salt and stir the bubbling mixture on a medium heat for another 2 minutes.
  6. Pour the hot mixture into the bowl of chopped dark chocolate and coconut and stir immediately until all the chocolate has melted and the caramel and chocolate are fully combined. Pour the passion fruit juice into the mixture, and stir to combine fully. Pour this into a shallow tray, and place in the freezer for an hour to set slightly.
  7. Once it has become slightly more solid, remove the tray of mixture from the freezer. Use a teaspoon to scoop out dollops, and roll each between the palms of your hands to form 2cm diameter spheres. Roll the spheres in the icing sugar to coat them finely, and then place them on a baking tray with space around each sphere to avoid their sticking together. Once all the mixture has been rolled into spheres, place the baking tray in the freezer for half an hour or until the spheres are firm and cold to touch. You may need to do this in batches as the ganache mixture melts very quickly.
  8. Break half the white chocolate (250g) into pieces and place in a bone-dry, heatproof bowl (any drop of water will make the chocolate seize). Place the bowl over a pot of boiling water (without the boiling water touching the base of the heatproof bowl), and stir occasionally until the chocolate is melted.
  9. Remove the dark chocolate spheres from the freezer, and one at a time, skewer with a toothpick and coat by spooning the melted white chocolate over each frozen chocolate sphere. Remove the skewer, replace the coated truffle on the baking tray, and replace in the freezer for 10 minutes for the first layer to set.

Melt the rest of the white chocolate (using the same method as before), and place the desiccated coconut (200g) in a bowl. Remove the truffles from the freezer. If you don’t want to get too messy, wear surgical gloves to do this stage. With one hand, roll the truffle in the melted white chocolate. Then, drop it into the coconut and with your other hand roll it to coat it. Once the batch is complete, place back in the freezer for a minimum 10 minutes to set.

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Double Chocolate Salted Caramel Tart

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Double Chocolate Salted Caramel Tart

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I never caught on to the Disney hype – I endured a few of the films when I was younger but was never enthralled by its saccharine princesses and unrealistic princes. I rejected the dressing up stage of childhood, and have none of the nostalgia that is awakened in many when hearing or singing the songs.  My only knowledge of Lion King is from Cindies (arguably the stickiest night club in Cambridge) which is played for 30 seconds without fail every Wednesday evening to excite the Disney addicts and to jolt inebriated students out of their drunken kisses.

What I did love was the sugar-glazed brutality of the original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory film.

I adored the Chocolate Room, and my six year old self spent a lot of time fantasising about edible wallpaper and edible TV adverts. However, the first scene, where Augustus Gloop falls into the ‘chocolate’ river, is almost too painful to watch.

It was concocted using 150,000 gallons of water, real chocolate and real ice cream, yet despite its authenticity, its watery thinness is more the stuff of sewers than of dreams.

If I were going to bathe in chocolate it would need to be velvety, glossy and thick… and after 15 years of dwelling on this I’ve come to terms with the fact that this tart is probably the closest I will get to doing that.

Double Chocolate Salted Caramel Tart

Ingredients

Chocolate pastry

225g plain flour

30g cocoa

150g unsalted butter, chopped into cubes

110g white caster sugar

3 egg yolks

¼ tsp salt

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 tbsp ice water

baking beads/uncooked rice/dry beans

4 fresh figs, halved (optional)

12 x 36cm tart tin, greased and dusted with flour

Salted caramel chocolate ganache

300g 70% good quality dark chocolate

300g white caster sugar

300ml double cream

20g light brown muscovado sugar

20g butter

1tsp vanilla extract

1 tsp salt

Pastry Method

  1. Preheat the oven to 200˚C
  2. Blitz all the ingredients in a blender. Pulse until into turns into a damp sand texture. Tip out on to a surface and press it so that it clumps together into dough.   Wrap the dough in baking parchment and put it in the fridge for an hour, or in the freezer for 15 minutes.
  3. Dust a surface with flour and roll the pastry out in a rectangle to a thickness of 0.5cm. Any excess can be frozen and used within 2 months. Transfer the pastry to the greased and floured tin to line it. Don’t panic if it crumbles in the transition, just patchwork it together in the tin. Place a sheet of baking parchment or tin foil over the pastry, and fill it with the baking beads to weigh it down to prevent the pastry from shrinking as it cooks.
  4. Place it in the oven to bake for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and remove the baking parchment and baking beads. Reduce the oven temperature to 150˚C, and place the pastry back in to bake for a further 10-15 minutes until it is fully cooked. Set aside to cool.

Salted Caramel Chocolate Ganache Method

  1. Chop the dark chocolate roughly, and set it aside in a heatproof mixing bowl.
  2. Place the caster sugar in a saucepan over medium high heat and, when it starts to melt, stir gently with a rubber spatula to avoid it burning around the edges. Push any unmelted sugar into the already caramelised sugar to aid the caramelising process.
  3. Once the sugar has turned a rich, dark gold colour, while still on the heat, pour in the cream whisking all the time. If clumps form, don’t panic: keep whisking over medium low heat, and they will eventually melt.
  4. Once the lumps have dissolved, whisk in the muscovado sugar, butter, vanilla and salt, and stir the bubbling mixture on a medium heat for another 2 minutes.
  5. Pour the mixture into the bowl of chopped dark chocolate and stir immediately until all the chocolate has melted and the caramel and chocolate are fully combined.
  6. Pour into the tart shell, smooth the surface over with a palate knife, and place this in the fridge for an hour (or freezer for half an hour) to set. Decorate with sliced figs to serve.
Double Chocolate Salted Caramel Tart

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Amaretti

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Amaretti

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Amaretti (gluten-free)  Amaretti

These are not those tooth-breaking, individually wrapped little rocks you might impulse buy at coffee shops.  They’re soft, aromatic and chewy (and great for the dentally challenged).

AmarettiAmaretti are also perfect for coeliacs, and can make a wonderful dessert paired with ice cream and a tangy berry sauce (see recipe here).

AmarettiThis recipe should be paired with my one for summer berry lemon curd tarts (see recipe here) which awkwardly leaves you with spare egg whites.  Don’t waste them, make these instead –you won’t regret it…

Amaretti

 

Amaretti

Ingredients (makes 35 small cookies)

360g ground almonds

220g caster sugar

finely grated zest of 2 lemons

½ tsp salt

115g egg white (3 large eggs, approx.)

4 tsp honey

¼ tsp almond extract

100g icing sugar, sieved, for rolling

 

1 large baking tray lined with baking parchment

 

Method

1.)    Preheat oven to 170˚C.  In a large bowl mix together the ground almonds, sugar, lemon zest and salt, and set aside.

2.)    Pour the egg whites into the bone dry and non-greasy bowl of an electric mixer.  Whisk on high speed until soft and frothy peaks form.  Pour the honey into the eggs and continue to whisk on a high speed until the peaks are glossy (see above photo). Sprinkle the almond extract into the eggs and whisk together very briefly at a low speed just to combine.

3.)    Very gently fold the whisked egg white mixture into the dry ingredients.  They will combine to form a soft and sticky paste.

4.)    Using your palms, roll 20g at a time of the mixture into spheres (roughly 2.5cm in diameter), and then roll each generously in a bowl of icing sugar.  Repeat and arrange on the tray, leaving at least 3cm between.  Use the tines of a fork to slightly flatten the amaretti spheres. Place the tray in the oven to bake for 8-12 minutes until they are beginning to turn golden on the outside but are still soft inside.  They will continue to cook as they cool.

Amaretti

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Tipsy Triple Raspberry Macarons

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Tipsy Triple Raspberry Macarons

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Tipsy Triple Raspberry Macarons I refuse to believe that the macaron is simply a fad.  Admittedly, there was a craze which saw the opening of several French macaron boutiques in London. I shan’t name names but one of the largest French specialists does not even make them fresh in London. Instead, they import them frozen from France - in a state of hibernation, as they call it.

Tipsy Triple Raspberry Macarons

Tipsy Triple Raspberry Macarons

Despite this, the specialists remain, and the macaron is here to stay. Now that the craze has faded a little, I feel more free to write a recipe as people will be slightly less sick of the sight of the perfect ruffled shells.

Tipsy Triple Raspberry Macarons

Many are intimidated at the prospect of making them, but there really is no need.  The rumour of the challenge in making them may well have been promulgated by the macaron specialists themselves in order to justify their extortionate pricing.

Tipsy Triple Raspberry Macarons

To make them extra tangy and fruity, raspberry is worked into these macarons in three ways: freeze dried raspberries, raspberry jam and raspberry liqueur.  If you can’t get hold of freeze dried raspberries, just omit this element from the recipe.

Tipsy Triple Raspberry MacaronsTipsy Triple Raspberry Macarons

Tipsy Triple Raspberry Macarons

Triple Raspberry Liqueur Macarons 

 

Makes about 30 small macarons

 

Ingredients

110g icing sugar, sieved

50g ground almonds, blitzed in a blender to a fine powder, and sieved

5g freeze dried raspberry powder OR 10g freeze dried raspberries, crushed or whole (see below)

60g egg whites (about 2 eggs' worth)

40g caster sugar

A couple of drops of pink food dye (optional)

200g seedless raspberry am

4 tbsp Chambord (raspberry liqueur)

 

2 large baking trays lined with baking parchment – if you wish to achieve perfectly circular macarons, create guidelines for the piping by drawing in pencil round a 4cm bottle lid repeatedly on the greaseproof paper, leaving at least 4cm between each circle.  Flip it over after doing this to ensure that the pencil does not transfer to the macaron

 

Piping bag fitted with 0.5cm nozzle

 

  1. In a large bowl, mix together the sieved icing sugar, ground almonds and freeze dried raspberry powder.  If you can only get hold of crushed or whole freeze dried raspberries, place these in a blender and blitz until they are as pulverised as possible, and then sieve to remove the seeds.  You should be left with a fine red dust.
  2. Pour egg whites into the bowl of a bone dry electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. Whisk at a high speed until soft, foamy peaks form.  Then, with the whisk still ongoing, add in the caster sugar, a tablespoonful at a time.  Keep whisking until the meringue is glossy and firm peaks form.
  3. Take a third of the meringue and mix it into the dry ingredients.  If the dry ingredients don’t fully combine, stir in another tablespoon of meringue.  At this point you can add a couple of drops of food dye to reach desired colour - anything from baby  girl to schiaparelli pink. The mixture should turn into a thick, smooth paste.  Then, gradually fold in the rest of the meringue, a tablespoon at a time, until the mixture becomes glossy and smooth.
  4. Spoon mixture in the piping bag and pipe little dots directly onto the corners of the baking tray to stick the baking parchment down.  Then pipe the mixture into each circle.  Once finished piping, tap the tray down firmly on a hard surface a couple of times to remove the air bubbles from the macarons. Then set the macarons aside at room temperature for 30 minutes.  This will allow a skin to form and will lead to the creation of the often-elusive but essential “macaron foot”.
  5. While they are resting, preheat oven to 150˚C. Bake the macarons for 20 minutes or until they can be lifted off the tray cleanly with a pallet knife. Allow them to cool until they reach room temperature.
  6. Place raspberrry jam in a small pot over a medium-high heat and stir continuously. After it has bubbled furiously for a couple of minutes, stir in the Chambord.  Allow the mixture to simmer for about 5 minutes,  or until it has become more viscous and thick enough to be able to be dropped off a spoon. Remove from the stove, allow to cool for 5 minutes and then sandwich each pair of macaron shells together with a teaspoon of the mixture.

Tipsy Triple Raspberry Macarons

 

Tipsy Triple Raspberry Macarons

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